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IN THE DARK Network TV, its wires crossed by the cable threat, is collapsing under the weight of clueless programming. Thank heavens for the old reliables.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Last year at this time, I looked out over a TV landscape that included "The Tony Danza Show" and said something incredibly stupid: "Network television couldn't get any worse."

One "Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer" later, I admit how horribly wrong I was: The collapse continues.

As we approach the halfway point of the network season, there is an overwhelming urge to trash everything. But, as usual, truth lies somewhere in the middle.

As you grind your teeth over "Encore! Encore!" or "Living in Captivity," remember "The Temptations" or recent, brilliant episodes of "ER" and "NYPD Blue." They are all representative in one way or another of the great change and larger forces shaping network television these days -- making quality programming harder, but not impossible, to find.

"I have two thoughts about the new television season, and they are so opposed to each other as to almost seem contradictory," Robert J. Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University, said in an interview this week.

"On the one hand, it is an extraordinarily dismal, arid season that begs the question: How much longer can network TV go without a new idea? But, on the other hand, what we have is still so much better than anything that was on network TV prior to 1981."

Thompson, the author of "Television's Second Golden Age: From 'Hill Street Blues' to 'ER,' " lists a number of current series, urging a comparison of them with anything that came before the debut of "Hill Street Blues" in 1981. He cites "The Practice," "Ally McBeal," "NYPD Blue," "Law & Order," "Homicide" and "Frasier."

"Sure, 'NYPD Blue' might be getting a little long in the tooth, but it's still a lot better than 'T.J. Hooker,' isn't it?" he asks rhetorically.

Most of the old series are doing OK. It is the new ones that are such a big part of what's wrong with the TV season. Or, should I say, "were a big part," since so many of them have already been shipped off to the never-never land of hiatus or outright cancellation. Remember "The Brian Benben Show," "Vengeance Unlimited," "Costello" or "Living in Captivity"?

NBC had some of the worst bombs, with Bo Derek in "Wind on Water" and "Encore! Encore!", which gets the award for the worst waste of major talent -- Nathan Lane and Joan Plowright. After years of ratings leadership and generally good quality series, NBC is unraveling. One of its worst trouble spots is Tuesday nights.

NBC programmers said "Mad About You" could hold the fort on Tuesdays after "Frasier" was sent off to save Thursdays in a scary, post-Seinfeld, prime-time world. They bet $73 million on it -- the price they are paying for the series, including $1 million an episode each for Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt.

Bad bet. The ratings for "Mad About You" are down 37 percent from last year. At best, it finishes third in its time period behind "JAG" on CBS and "Home Improvement" on ABC. Last year at this time, it ranked 15th out of 140 or so prime-time series. This year, it has fallen to 55th. Viewers, who felt at home on NBC on Tuesday nights, are feeling lost this fall.

All of this contributed to the departure last month of Warren Littlefield as president of NBC Entertainment. But Fox and CBS also have new programming executives since September. Thirty-five-year-old Jamie Tarses, of ABC, is now dean of network programmers. You remember Tarses; she was supposed to have been fired for ABC's disastrous prime-time schedule last year.

The turnover and confusion at the top of the network programming ladder are directly reflected in what we are seeing on our TV screens. They are symptoms of huge problems faced by the industry.

Network television finds itself at a crossroads. The combined average audience share for the six networks is down 14 percent from last year at this time. Audience erosion has reached the point at which networks have to start thinking more like cable channels. If they want to remain profitable, they need distinctive brand identity and more tightly focused target audiences. It is no accident that both Fox and NBC hired cable executives to head their programming departments.

But such change does not happen successfully overnight.

Good and bad

One of the most sought-after target audiences this fall is that of African-American viewers -- a fact that accounts for some of the worst and best of what we have seen in recent months. UPN actually thought black viewers would like "The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer," a sitcom about a black valet to President Lincoln. Fox, too, thought it had a winner with black audiences with "Living in Captivity," from producer Diane English.

Both were quickly canceled. Not only did black viewers instantly tune out; in the case of "Pfeiffer," they picketed UPN over its treatment of slavery as a laughing matter.

But then the good news: NBC's desire to lure black viewers from HBO and Showtime with better movies resulted in "The Temptations" miniseries last month, about the legendary Motown singing group. CBS came up with a quality miniseries, "Mama Flora's Family," featuring Cicely Tyson and Queen Latifah. ABC has also had some success with "The Hughleys," a sitcom about a black family in a white suburb from executive producer Chris Rock.

In general, made-for-TV movies have been better this fall as the networks battle cable for viewers. CBS' "Saint Maybe" and ABC's remake of "Rear Window" with Christopher Reeve are two good examples in recent weeks. You can expect that trend to continue throughout the season.

But, again, there have been missteps. NBC, thinking its history of quality would help attract PBS viewers as well as those getting their movies on cable, dropped women-in-jeopardy flicks for such literary fare as "Crime and Punishment." The ratings were so bad for "Crime and Punishment" that an updated version of "The Tempest," with Peter Fonda, was quietly rescheduled out of November "sweeps" to Dec. 13.

The most successfully branded of all the networks is the WB, with its emphasis on youth drama. It is the only network to show an increase in audience share from last year at this time -- up 29 percent. "Felicity," the saga of a young woman's first year at college, is holding the Tuesday-night audience delivered by its lead-in, "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." And both are hits with the critics -- even though neither finished higher than 92nd out of 120 series last week.

PBS made a wise brand-identity move, too, that has resulted in better viewing. Trying to set itself in sharp counterpoint to the slick, superficiality of network newsmagazines, PBS has aired several of its finest documentaries in years -- David Sutherland's "The Farmer's Wife," Orlando Bagwell's "Africans in America" and "Frank Lloyd Wright," by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick.

"The Farmer's Wife," an incredibly intimate look at a Nebraska couple's battle to save their farm, alone is almost enough to redeem television from all the awful pilots the commercial networks threw against the wall this fall with no idea of what would stick.

Those that look as if they will stick are: "Jesse" and "Will and Grace" on NBC, "That '70s Show" on Fox, "Sports Night" and "The Hughleys" on ABC, "Felicity" and "Charmed" on the WB, and "The King of Queens," "Martial Law" and "L.A. Doctors" on CBS.

Of those, only "Martial Law," an extremely violent drama starring Sammo Hung as a Hong Kong supercop assigned to the LAPD, wins its time period. It is the highest-rated new drama of the season -- a fact that depresses me tremendously. It also makes me think Thompson is right when he says we are past the second golden age of television drama and are now living off the remains of great series like "ER," "NYPD Blue" and "Law & Order," while their successors are nowhere to be seen.

But the most depressing trend of the season so far has been the success of cheap "reality" specials, especially from Fox, like "Busted On the Job III," which featured such splendid moments as a secretary fouling -- that's the only word I can use in a family newspaper -- the office of her boss. It finished 12th out of 120 shows during the all-important last week of November sweeps, ahead of "Law & Order," "The X-Files" and "Ally McBeal," to name a few slightly higher-caliber offerings.

The week before, Fox had another big ratings winner with the deplorable "When Good Pets Go Bad." It finished 16th, ahead of "The Drew Carey Show," "Everybody Loves Raymond" and "Dharma and Greg."

We will be seeing more low-rent reality specials this year. In such uncertain times, they are impossible to resist by network programmers. There is almost no risk in that they are cheap to produce. Meanwhile, they offer the promise of an audience large enough to land you in the Nielsen Top 20.

While I'm no longer foolish enough to say that network television can't get any worse, such shows as "Desmond Pfeiffer" and "Living in Captivity" make me think and pray it can't.

But I fear somewhere in Hollywood, a beast is slumping off to the back lot of Fox to give birth to a reality special titled "Busted on the Job by Good Pets Who Have Gone Bad During the World's Wildest Police Chases and Life's Most Embarrassing Moments with America's Dumbest Criminals and Dick Clark."

Pub Date: 12/05/98

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